Finding his way to the start of a new book has become a familiar route for the award-winning Newfoundland author Michael Crummey. First, there is the avoidance, a glorious, elastic period that stretches for months and sometimes even years. It involves high productivity with activities such as baking molasses buns midday and, really, anything other than book-writing.
Then comes the reckoning, a shorter phase wherein Crummey turns from the temptation of never writing again towards the notion of putting pen to paper once more. Next, there is a trip to the archives in St. John’s.
“I just sort of poke around until I find something that feels like it belongs,” Crummey said in a recent interview. “Usually that’s how it happens.”
The exception to this is Crummey’s much-anticipated new novel, The Innocents. An outport survival tale featuring the orphaned siblings Ada and Evered Best as they navigate adolescence in an isolated cove, the book stems from a scrap of an idea that embedded itself in Crummey’s mind years ago. He has been trying to ignore its thorny territory ever since.
But last year, Crummey found himself nearing the end of one of those long stretches of non-writing and under contract to produce a new novel. He contemplated dusting off the old orphan idea but worried about botching the tale and the tone. What if he didn’t have the stomach to tackle a story that involved incest? What if he did?
When Crummey finally sat down, the book spilled out of him with such tidal force that there was no time for his usual diversion to the archives.
“I actually never made it out of my office. It felt like an out-of-body experience,” said Crummey.
That experience happened in step with the creative outpouring flowing steadily from the Rock. Its ripples are being felt not just across Canada, with books, movies and television shows written and produced by Newfoundlanders, but around the world, with streaming services giving reach to narratives with roots on the easternmost margin of the country.
“The number of stories to be told here are limitless. But why there are so many good writers coming out of here at the moment, that’s one of those happy accidents. I feel like I’m one of the waves washing up on shore as part of that,” Crummey mused.
“It is a place of extremes,” he said, adding: “Which leads to interesting stories.”
It was nearly a decade ago that Crummey first discovered the small story that inspired The Innocents in the form of an old clipping documenting the historic travels of a clergyman. He wrote about stumbling across a feral pair of orphaned siblings in a remote, isolated outport cove. The children refused the clergyman’s help and ultimately drove him away, but not before he observed that the girl was pregnant. He believed her brother to be the unborn child’s father.
The fraught scene both captivated and terrified Crummey.
“I was really interested in telling the story of these two children, completely sheltered from the outside world in so many ways and sheltered from their own natures,” Crummey said.
“Part of the reason the story stayed with me the way that it did was because I just could not imagine how lonely and isolating it must have been for this brother and sister,” he said.
Crummey’s first attempt at writing about the pair stalled, though, after just a few pages.
“I lost my nerve,” said Crummey, who wrote his first novel two decades ago and has since won and been nominated for several of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada and the Caribbean), the Scotiabank Giller Prize (River Thieves), the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (The Wreckage) and the Governor General’s Literary Award (Galore and Sweetland).
At the encouragement of his longtime editor, Martha Kanya-Forstner, Crummey committed himself once more to the Best siblings. The result, after a writing marathon that landed him at his desk every day for nearly four months, was The Innocents, a book he dedicated to Kanya-Forstner.
Stuffed with the rich, sensory descriptions of latter-day Newfoundland that Crummey’s readers have come to yearn for, with spare but poetic prose, he recreates the piercing outport cold that numbs Evered and Ava, using ink on the page to give readers goosebumps. His Newfoundland remains consistent with past works: it is simultaneously vast and claustrophobic; those who love it must sacrifice for it, submit to its cruelty and navigate heartbreak to survive. Readers ought to be warned of the risk that they, too, are apt to suffer sore hearts as they plod through the hard times Ava and Evered face.
“As the book progresses, the outside world and their own natures are sort of forced upon them or revealed to them in awe-inspiring and also terrifying ways,” Crummey said.
“Whatever washes up on the beach becomes part of their story,” he said. “That’s a very Newfoundland thing.”
The same is true of Crummey’s life on the island. Although he wrote most of his first novel, River Thieves, in Kingston, Ontario, Crummey moved home to Newfoundland shortly thereafter to write full time. His writing, he said, is better for it.
“The books that I’ve written since I’ve been home would have been very different if I wasn’t living in Newfoundland,” he said. “That’s simply because so much of what’s in those books, I’ve gotten from being here, from being out and talking to people, from experiencing the weather.”
Indeed, one storm that Ada and Evered suffer through in The Innocents was one that Crummey was in himself.
“To not have been here… would have made my sense of it very different,” he said. He doesn’t doubt his ability to write about Newfoundland from afar (while he did not grow up in an outport community, his hometown Buchans, a mining town, was full of people who did, including his parents). But he said his stories are richer because of where he lives and the material Atlantic Canada affords access to, compared with other places.
“So many turns of phrase or anecdotes that I’ve heard from people, just would not have been available to me,” Crummey said. “You see or hear something and you think, ‘Ah, I can use that!’ I would have never gotten that in Ontario,” he said, adding: “The flavour of my books would have been completely different if I wasn’t living here.”
Crummey describes himself as “too insular and too shy” to participate in any of the official writing groups in St. John’s (The Burning Rock Collective, which has included authors Lisa Moore and Michael Winter, is perhaps the most well-known). But he has a sense of shared momentum with Newfoundland’s burgeoning cast of creatives.
“I feel like the work that I’m doing is connected to the work of all these other people, not just in fiction and poetry, but in the theatre and the music coming out of here, the comics,” he said. “The work feels like an expression of the place we come from.”
“Fifty years from now, most of the people will be forgotten. But the work itself, the sense that there was a flowering of Newfoundland literature and music and culture that spread across the country and around the world, that will remain.”
That includes Crummey’s increasingly brave books. ■